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Equipment Firms Back LED Tools Against Slump

KLA-Tencor sees LEDs as the only prospect for growth of its inspection business, while Ultratech will launch the lowest-cost projection steppers yet into the same market in 2009.

Rival semiconductor manufacturing equipment vendors KLA-Tencor and Ultratech agree that LED manufacturing will be their highest growth-rate sector in 2009.

San Jose, California, based Ultratech s expectation of growth in the III-V application come on the back of increased profits in the last three months of 2008.

Sales at fellow Californian KLA-Tencor are more than ten times those of Ultratech, but dropped sharply in the same period, driving the company to a loss. Its executives believe that although LED makers may have stopped growing, they are at least not shrinking, in contrast to its other semiconductor customers.

Projection steppers for LED manufacturing are currently part of a 6 percent “Nanotechnology" sliver of the overall $34 million revenues Ultratech recorded in the December quarter.

Chief financial officer Bruce Wright says that the company expects overall 2009 revenues to fall by up to 20 percent from the $132 million it received in 2008.

“Nanotechnology revenue on the other hand should be greater in 2009, due to increased sales from high brightness LEDs," Wright said.

During 2009 Ultratech intends to introduce a line of projection steppers for use in LED lithography that will sell for less than $1 million each.

“We will provide the world s lowest-cost production steppers, which we believe is essential to reduce manufacturing cost in price-sensitive LED applications," commented chief executive officer Art Zafiropoulo.

Zafiropoulo explained that the stepper will have a throughput greater than 80 wafers per hour and a "super soft" handling system capable of processing full and partial III-V wafers. The steppers will accommodate wafers ranging from 2-inch to 6-inch in diameter, meaning that users can retain the same equipment as they upgrade wafer dimensions on other tools.

“We believe that in the next 10 years more than 250 of these low-cost steppers will be needed," the CEO added. “We are currently completing our market study and expect to introduce this product in the next few quarters."

KLA-Tencor s sales fell from $533 million in the quarter ended September to $397 million in the quarter ended December. It says that the current quarter could provide revenues anywhere between 20 percent better or worse than this figure.

The segment that the company calls “solar, storage, high-brightness LED and other non-semiconductor equipment" was approximately 7 percent of its overall sales, down from 9 percent sequentially.

During 2008 KLA-Tencor bought Vistec s metrology and inspection equipment division and ICOS Vision Systems, another inspection tool provider. Despite initial predictions of expanding these acquisitions, the global recession has forced the company to re-evaluate its expectations.

“I don t see anything in the near term that leads us to believe that there will be significant growth on that side of the business," commented Rick Wallace, KLA-Tencor CEO. “The one exception is high brightness LED."

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